Also known as Teresa de Jesús, this remarkable lady was an energetic reformer, thinker and religious mystic at a time when women very rarely had any kind of public life, and particularly women who were not of aristocratic descent.
Teresa was lucky enough to have a father who loved reading and filled her childish imagination with stories of romance and adventure. She became fascinated with the idea of crusading against the Muslim infidel and at the age of seven ran away from home in search of martyrdom. On her return home she tried to live as a hermit in her parents’ garden. She finally announced her intention to become a nun and, against her father’s wishes, entered a convent in Avila at the age of eighteen.
After a period of extremely poor health, Teresa adapted happily to her new life in the Carmelite Order. In 1558 she experienced the first of many religious raptures in which she had a vision of hell, followed by other heavenly visions including one of the resurrected Christ. At the same time she became an inspired reformer, rejecting the relaxation of monastic rules and bringing the Carmelite Order back to principles of austerity, poverty and enclosure. Together with the monk Juan de la Cruz, she established convents and monasteries, known as the “Barefooted Carmelites”, all over Spain.
Partly as a result of the conflict between Teresa and the powerful aristocrat known as the Princess of Eboli, Teresa’s writings were investigated by the Inquisition which questioned the authenticity of her religious ecstasies. Teresa suffered rejection from with the Catholic hierarchy and there was an attempt to exile her to an American colony. In the end she was rescued by the king Felipe II. However, her persecution continued at the hands of those who regarded her as troublesome and insubordinate. She died amidst a torment of controversy and opposition, having founded 17 Carmelite convents throughout Spain and Portugal.
Controversy followed her after her death until she was beatified in 1614 and in 1622 was named co-patron saint of Spain. She was also the first female to be distinguished by the church as Doctora Honoris Causa in 1970. One wonders what her life would have been like, had she lived in more emancipated times.